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Don’t Blame the Victims of Urban Violence

When gunmen shot a dozen people at a Baltimore cookout in late July, the Baltimore Sun had the following advice for community residents:

The responsibility lies just as much on the innocent people who live in Baltimore’s violence-ravaged communities as it does on the police. Fear and the "stop snitching" code may keep people from talking. But think about this: Someone just walked into a backyard cookout and opened fire indiscriminately, wounding a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old girl. No code of honor applies to a person who would do something like that, and no amount of silence guarantees safety when that kind of violence is allowed to take place. 

The Baltimore Sun isn’t alone in this view. "Start Snitching" campaigns have appeared in Baltimore and throughout the country.

Is it really a misplaced sense of honor, though, that keeps some urban communities trapped in cycles of violence?

The "stop snitching" argument forms part of a larger argument that borders on blaming the victims. We hear about "community responsibility" as though community members make no efforts. But they do. Here’s the aftermath of Baltimore’s cookout shooting:

In a poignant sense, residents say, crime has helped forge a stronger sense of community.
A decade ago, neighbors banded together to fight open-air drug dealing on Ashland. They slept on the streets, cut the cords of pay phones used by young dealers and pushed junkies out of an abandoned house on Rose Street to set up a community center. When someone burned it down, they opened another one.

"We’re getting a terrible rap behind that shooting," R.B. Smith, a Luzerne Avenue resident for 40 years, said of the recent violence. "We’ve made too much progress for that. That’s not what we’re about here." Elroy Christopher, a neighborhood fixture who warred with drug dealers in the 1990s, doesn’t want the area written off as some hopeless wasteland. "We have a lot of people here dedicated to making a difference," he said.

But despite the work of Christopher and others, urban realities remain stubbornly entrenched. Drug-dealing, though perhaps less brazen than before, persists – flourishes, some say, along Madison Street. Gunfire is part of the soundtrack of the street, so common that people sitting on front steps barely budge when they hear the pops….

Christopher and his family – two grown daughters and their children live a few houses away – remember knocking on doors in the 2600 block of Ashland earlier this summer, trying to promote youth programs. No one answered at the home where the cookout shooting occurred.

Demetra Oluwasefumi, Christopher’s 35-year-old daughter, shook her head. "If they don’t make themselves known to us … you keep yourself in a little circle. Why not come join the living?"

Then again, neighbors say the cookout’s 25-year-old host, Lakeisha Hill, who arranged the event in memory of her slain brother, puts in long hours as a nurse at Central Booking. So maybe she was just at work that day.

Christopher and Smith were tucked away in their rowhouses at the time of the shooting Sunday night. Though it was just around the corner, neither rushed to the scene. They also skipped the vigils and passed on adding a candle or balloon to the memorial that sprang up on the corner.

Those are fleeting gestures, they say, and they want to save their time and energy for efforts that may have an enduring impact on their community, like youth programs and job training.

"The NAACP, the police, they come out here for one night, two nights, and they’re gone," Christopher said. "We live here. We want to make an everlasting change.

"What do I think about the shooting?" he said. "I think I better keep knocking on doors."

To Mitchell Henderson, the only hope for lasting change is to connect with youth. For 30 years, he has helped run the Madison-East End Multipurpose Center, and last week wrapped up a six-week program for 21 teenagers in the city’s YouthWorks summer initiative. 

So it’s not like community residents aren’t trying to address their own problems.

I don’t advocate that white middle-class activists go charging into nonwhite, low-income communities and try to solve all the problems there, but I do think we should think more about how people from outside the community can partner with residents to address the challenges of violence, poverty, and drug use. Maybe if the outside groups stayed longer in East Baltimore they could help local activists make a larger difference.

And I definitely think elites – at newspapers and elsewhere – should think twice before blaming victims for problems that no one, from political leaders on down, seems to have good answers for. 

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Alex Thurston

Alex Thurston